THE SUBLIME
There are a few moments, hours, and days in your life when, if you are observant, you may just be in the presence of the best there's ever been.

It doesn’t matter who was performing, but to give them credit, it was the quintet, the Canadian Brass. As they dazzled the audience with the brilliance of their musicianship and as the melodies and harmonic subtleties teased my senses, I was caught in a conflicting emotion, a wistfulness, almost a sadness. That emotion was the sense of the sublime, and its moment lasted two hours.

I suppose each of us has a different capacity to appreciate the sublime. It differs from the sentimental, although maybe the capacity for being affected by one goes with susceptibility to the other.

For me, the sublime occurs at times like that performance: the realization that I’m in the presence of the best there’s ever been, that, no matter how many concerts they give over a lifetime, what I’m hearing will be heard and appreciated by only a tiny segment of humanity. Ever. Maybe from time to time over the next several hundred years other groups of dazzling brass players will form such groups, but the audiences then won’t be fortunate enough to hear the same tunes or witness the same combination of sophistication and silliness (gold-plated instruments, tuxedos over white shoelaces) that we were privileged to see and hear.

The sublime can be ephemeral; either you were there, or you missed it altogether, forever. Maybe you and I were both witness to the same event and one of us was spellbound and the other distracted.

I am overwhelmed by the sublime more often in a museum or among small groups of people than on the street or in the wild. And it occurs to me that the wonders of God’s creation are awe-inspiring and spectacular, but it is the things done or being done by humans, and sometimes things I am participating in, which make something sublime. It’s in the music of Tchaikovsky, both in the fact that it was composed by a human (and not a deity) in the first place, then too, as interpreted by virtuoso performers.

The sublime can occur for me in a conversation with a four-year-old. It’s found in the re-telling of a moment of heroism – the split second when one person steps forward and offers a life to save others. It’s found in an elegantly simple equation in mathematics. It’s found in the pages of a few great books – those few times when I’ve read a passage that takes my breath away and I regret that I’m the lone witness to it at that moment. (I can mark the passage and show it to someone else later, but the person I force to read it the next day hasn’t been engrossed in the whole story as I was. The passage may still have an impact, but it won’t strike someone else as it did me.)

It occurred when I looked closely at a Fabergé egg in the Hermitage; when I passed a Duesenberg on the 17-mile Drive; when I heard and then saw a steam locomotive working the Alps; when I’ve watched an Aruban sunset while nibbling a Havana cigar. It occurs in the moments of scientific discovery, usually, though, totally unappreciated by the oblivious, contemporary world and sometimes not even appreciated by the discoverer. And yet, years or centuries after such a discovery, I can experience that moment of awe that the discoverer might or might not have felt too.

A family gathering can be sublime – the balmy afternoon that passes slowly while all the members are engaged in leisurely activities and everyone, to a person, is content. And it is mere contentment that sometimes strikes me as sublime, as I sit in a quiet room in my house late in the evening while the rest of the household sleeps, and I realize the improbability that I have every material comfort I ever could have wanted, and on top of that the love of my children and my wife, and in my hand a glass of Bernkastler Beerenauslese, a substance of sublime qualities all by itself.

I realize, too, that when something is overwhelmingly sublime to me, such as the concert of the Canadian Brass, it may be so only for me. The wistfulness comes when I wonder whether I am alone in the feeling, and, too, when I realize that there are people the world over who won’t have a meal today or a blanket tonight; there are those whose every waking moment is focused on despotism, murder, pain, depression, incarceration, fear, hatred, or so many other distractions; comes too because Maslow understood the hierarchy of needs all too well, that those dominated by such distractions may never know the sensation I am describing.

I’m not especially alert for it. It happens of its own accord. I can’t will it to infuse an event, even if I think all the elements are there. It is something, as I say, to which I am, as I suspect all humans are to a degree, susceptible.

There are times when I am knocked flat by my own unworthiness. There are lines in a couple of standard church hymns, for instance, that I cannot sing, and indeed one entire hymn, known to almost everyone, that takes away my voice, so powerfully does it humble me. This is something beyond the sublime, but what it is I cannot name.

A line in the hymn ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ concludes: “O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.” Hearing angels sing would exceed the sublime – would cross into the divine – but the exhortation can be adapted, (and I would not presume to improve upon the original line, which in itself is another example of what I’m talking about): “O hush the noise, and in the pause, attend for the sublime.”

2002
©DamnYankee.com